Eddie Izzard has been described as Britain’s surrealist-in-chief – a child who was weaned on Monty Python and now counts several former members of the troupe as ardent fans, along with Prince William, who “has all his videos”, according to the young royal’s father, Prince Charles.
Izzard is also one of the few comedians who crosses global boundaries. The comic, who turned 55 this month, is in the middle of his mammoth “Force Majeure” tour, which started in 2013 and will see him perform in Hong Kong for the first time, on February 23, as part of a jaunt through 30 countries.
It is easy to see why he is so successful. His nonsensical intellectual flights of fancy mark him out from his more humdrum, observational rivals – as too does his flamboyant appearance; he has described himself as “a straight transvestite or a male lesbian”, more recently preferring to define himself as simply transgender. But it is also not all that taxing to fathom why some people find him so irritating. He has become increasingly political and, when in full flow, his schtick is devoid of the humour, wit and rabid originality – let alone the silliness – that make his comedy so popular.
Nineteen years ago, he went on the BBC’s flagship political programme, Question Time, his appearance on the panel later being described as “reminiscent of the moment when Culture Club once informed us, insightfully, that war is stupid”.
Izzard’s descent into political fatuousness was illustrated most clearly ahead of Britain’s referendum on its membership of the European Union, last year. As one of the leading celebrity campaigners on the side of Remain, he appeared again on Question Time, going toe-to-toe with the country’s top Brexiteer, the then UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage. It wasn’t his finest hour. The Independent newspaper described him as not just having made the journey from “incoherent and unpersuasive” to “actually awful”, but as providing “millions of viewers with one of the best adverts for Brexit we have seen in a long time”. It also referred to the insistence of Izzard, “a highly intelligent man”, on slipping into “a frankly bizarre kindergarten lingo about the need to stick together and cooperate rather than be divisive”. (And the paper was on Izzard’s side of the EU debate!)
I am reminded of this as he chats to me over the world’s most crackly phone line from the Spanish leg of his tour – where he is performing in Spanish, his fourth language – for, to my great disappointment, I am being treated to Earnest Eddie at his most banal.
He has declared his intention to become either a member of parliament or the mayor of London by 2020. Does this most ambitious of people, I wonder, dream of being the world’s first transgender head of state?
“No, I’m just an activist,” Izzard proclaims, as he flits around his room in an attempt to get better reception. “And I’d like people to have a decent life. I want a live-and-let-live world – that’s what I’m after. I want to have a world where all seven billion people have an equal chance in life. I don’t want to see hatred – I want people to be able to live together and work together. I just don’t want separation and division.”
So far, so kindergarten. It is the kind of lazy rhetoric you could imagine hearing from any two-bit politician. Would even Donald Trump argue that he dreamed of division or that he did not want people to have a decent life?
It will certainly be an interesting transition – moving from a career that involves absorbing applause each night to one in which he will have to be prepared to be deeply disliked. How will that work?
“We’ll have to see on that front,” he says, before another state-the-obvious stream of consciousness pours forth: “If you’re unpopular with people whose ideas you think are wrong, it means you’re probably popular with the people whose ideas you think are right.”
When I ask about how his stated faith that as a world “we gradually move forwards, not backwards” sits in a world of Brexit and Trump, I get: “We do go backwards. Some people want to go back to the 1930s – and the 1930s didn’t work. We’ve got to be positive about the world – we’ve got to be heading towards a world that is together rather than a world that is about building walls, hating Muslims – we did that before, it doesn’t work.
“We did go through this period back in the 1930s and we came out of it,” he tells me later, while explaining that one of his ambitions (alongside learning to perform in Russian and Arabic) is to stay positive. “So everyone has just got to keep fighting, keep being positive and go forwards. And we need to head back towards a place where we’re learning how to work together in the world in some shape or form – it’s the only future for humanity. Running and hiding, building walls, hatred – that just doesn’t work. If anyone picks up a history book, they can find out what happened last time.”
Mercifully, Hongkongers won’t be getting any of this in his live comedy. Nor will there be any locally inspired material – and not just because he has never been to Hong Kong.
“If you do a hit film and it was shown in London and it was shown in Hong Kong, you’d want to see the same film,” he explains. “That’s the way I work it.”
What you can expect is “moles that are digging for gold”, “Darth Vader fighting God over spaghetti carbonara” and “the reason chicken Caesar salad got its name – because Caesar used to work opposite a chicken when he was planning a battle”. It will all be delivered by an Izzard wearing a natty shade of red nail varnish. (“It used to be dark purple. They don’t mean anything – they’re just colours.”)
“So it’s very surreal,” Izzard summarises. “It’s a crazy mix of intelligence and stupidity. That’s what people get when they come to my show.” The late Robin Williams, one of his devotees, summed up the Izzard brand by saying: “It sounds like a contradiction, but his comedy is gentle cutting edge. Kind of like a velvet razor.”
His frenetic routines can be so complex that journalists come unstuck describing them. The New York Times once had to publish a delicious correction: “An article about Eddie Izzard described the setup to his ‘Cake? Or Death?’ routine incorrectly. He imagined what would have happened if the Church of England rather than the Roman Catholic Church had run the Inquisition – not if the Church of England rather than the Romans had tried to conquer the world.”
Talking of conquering, most comics would be content with cracking Britain and America. Not this one. He will have criss-crossed Europe, North America, Africa, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, India, Nepal and East Asia with the most-travelled couple of hours of comedy in history before he sits down to write his next hit.
“Well, it’s not global domination,” he counters. “Domination is when you’re enforcing it. I’m just there – if you’d like to come. So it’s more like infusion, global infusion, like tea. It’s actually a positive thing where you go around the world and try and make connections and welcome people in. It’s got to be more positive than trying to build up walls.”
And it’s not just comedy marathons. In 2009, Izzard ran 43 actual marathons in 52 days for the charity Sport Relief, raising almost £2 million. Last year, he ran 27 in 27 days across South Africa – raising another £1 million – as a tribute to the 27 years Nelson Mandela (“my most favourite politician”) spent in prison.
If all that were not enough, there is the acting, too. He has starred in London’s West End, playing legendary comedian Lenny Bruce; on television, alongside Minnie Driver, in the series The Riches (2007-08); and on film, opposite Tom Cruise, in Valkyrie (2008), and with Brad Pitt and George Clooney, in Ocean’s Twelve (2004) and Thirteen (2007). This year, he will appear as Bertie, Prince of Wales, with Judi Dench in Victoria and Abdul, a follow-up to 1997’s Mrs Brown.
Izzard says his sheer determination is “partly built-in and it’s partly because I did struggle for 10 years before I could get anything going – and now things are working better, so that gives you encouragement to keep struggling”.
Those years of unrewarded toil, which started in 1983 and were spent performing street theatre in London, taught the comedian the lesson of his career: “how to stop an audience walking away from you”. The secret “is confidence, I think. It’s having this amazing confidence that you’re going to do something interesting. And it’s got to be coupled with the ability to deliver something interesting. But without the confidence, you don’t have a good bedrock to build the creative performance on top of.
“The confidence just comes from graft – pushing and trying and retrying. You don’t try one thing, you adjust it, you move it, you change it – bigger, smaller, wider. Look at what other people are doing. Constant analysis to try to get it better.”
The desire to perform comes from a much more tragic place, his mother’s death, just after he had turned seven, after which he was sent to boarding school, where, he says, he would cry constantly.
“Losing my mother is part of the performance thing,” he says. “Maybe that was struggling to swap the audience over for ... if your mother disappears from your life, then the audience gives you this affection if you do good work, so that was the swap that I’ve argued maybe exists.”
He has described his mum, a midwife and nurse, as the greatest love of his life, and the company that produces all his work, Ella Communications, is named after her.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Izzard is that he could very nearly have ended up in accountancy, like his father, who brought the Izzard brand of anarchy to his job at British Petroleum, by overhauling the filing system. “When he was told he couldn’t, he said, ‘Well, I’ve already done it.’”
If he were not entertaining the planet, now, however, the “frustrated shopkeeper” would probably be working behind a counter. “I just find retail fascinating,” he enthuses.
“I studied accounting and financial management at university, so it’s not shocking that I am actually selling comedy and drama and sometimes some merchandise as well. I like people who have good and positive, exciting ideas in business and retail. When I was a kid, I used to look at the railway sets and want to work in those shops. I just do like the idea of making things, building things and the idea that people would like to buy them.”
And if all the fame and fawning fizzled out tomorrow, Izzard insists he would be quite all right, thank you very much. In fact, he struggles to think of a single thing he would miss.
“I think of it as a sort of ephemeral thing that could disappear at any time so I try not to bank upon it,” he says. “So I still haven’t really worked out what it gives and what it doesn’t except it’s good for tables. It’s quite nice for being able to get a table at a restaurant. That’s the main thing you can actually get out of it.”
Eddie Izzard will bring his “Force Majeure” tour to the Academic Community Hall, Hong Kong Baptist University, on February 23.